Last week I talked about “Big Picture” edits as a continuation of my Newbie’s guide to self editing a novel. So logically, I am going to zoom in a bit and talk about what I affectionately call the “Little Picture” edits.
Recently I had a writer friend comment that editing is like a cupcake. Nailing down that plot, character arcs, and overall structure of the book is like baking the cake (aka all the big picture edits). You can’t really have a cupcake without the base.
But think of the little picture edits as the icing that goes on top! To make things simple and broke this down into three buckets: what to cut, change, and add.
What to cut
Brandon Sanderson claims he cuts down at least 10% of every manuscript he writes during the editing phase. While I tend to both overwrite and underwrite manuscripts (it depends on the story), it’s very common to spend more time cutting more from your first draft then adding to it.
This is because we as authors love to pad our first drafts with unnecessary details and redundancies.
Clear out the throat clearing
This is referring to the potential paragraphs you have written to get yourself warmed up and writing juices flowing. This often comes at the beginning a chapter or a scene.
Get in late and leave early. Often, you can delete the first paragraph and the last paragraph of a scene. Try cutting it, then reread to see if the scene still makes sense and isn’t losing anything vital.
Identify what the reader does and doesn’t need to know about the action of a scene. A reader DOES need to know what the characters are doing, where they are doing it, and how it affects the protagonist. Be sure to include the movements that show these details. What the reader DOESN’T need to know is the tedious specifics or irrelevant details,
i.e. I don’t need to know that John extended his left arm, gripped his fingers around the mug, raised it to his lips, opened his mouth, and took a sip of coffee. You get the point, right?
Be choosy with the descriptions you select. Not everything that is happening in a scene needs to be described, yet everything that is described must support the development of characters and plot. Rule of thumb: if it doesn’t serve a purpose, cut it out!
The obvious examples of redundancies are physically repeated words, and these are easier to catch. Using a search and replace features on your word processor of choice will provide great insights into which words you replicate.
There are also redundancies that you look for and eliminate in phrases such as “returned back” or “woke up.”. In these cases you can use the more concise “returned” and “woke.”
But also, be on the lookout for sentences that express the same thing to the reader. These can be hidden inside sentences with different purposes. For example, you could set the scene in a few lines of description, then have your protagonist share the same information in their inner thoughts, and then say the same information in a line of dialogue.
The reader doesn’t need a piece of information repeated several times. An exception being if you are purposefully using repetition for emphasis, if not cut it down and let your reader get to the good stuff.
When writing, get to the point. This means eliminating words such as “just” and “very.” Or phrases such as “began to” and “started to”.
This will also include adverbs! Remove words such as “suddenly” or “immediately” or any other adverb that is either unnecessary or could be improved with a stronger noun or verb.
Another type of filler word to edit out are words that distance the reader from the narrative. These are words such as saw, heard, watched, felt. Instead of “he felt the snow fall onto his lashes”, write “the snow fell onto his lashes.”
Whenever you use “to be” words such as “was” “were” or “are”, just to name a few, the voice of the writing becomes passive. Keep things active, tweak the sentence to eliminate those pesky “to be” word.
What to change
Show don’t tell
I didn’t understand just how important “show, don’t tell” is until including it into yet another post. Look for moments when the narrative is telling the reader what is happening instead of allowing the reader to experience it through the unfolding of events.
Common examples are when emotion is told versus shown. i.e. “He was angry” vs. “He clenched his fists and punched a wall.”
But be cautious of too much narrative summary, which is any moment where that feels like a secondhand report instead of a firsthand account. This doesn’t mean narrative summary doesn’t have its place, but the key moments and majority of your plot progression should feel active and experiential for the reader.
Whether you have one Point of View (POV) character or multiple, having a clear voice for the character will immediately set your book apart and drag readers in. A distinct voice will connect the reader to the character no matter i in the first, second, or third point of view.
After writing a full novel, you should have a good idea of what your POV character (s) are like––how they speak, act, and engage with their world. Now look at not just the dialogue of the story, look at inner thoughts, actions, and descriptions of the story and make sure that they read as if the character is telling the story.
Check how you are describing things: physical traits, the setting, motivations. Does the character use the language they would use? Do they notice what they would notice? Does anything feel inconsistent between the character as you have developed them and how their voice?
I think this explains itself, but during the small picture editing is when you get to run wild and fix all of those fragmented sentences and dangling modifiers. I’m not going to go into all the possible grammar mistakes because I am no expert and there’s way too many. Seriously, Mignon Fogerty has made a career of it.
But, if you are interested, I have created a list of my top grammar mistakes.
What to Add
This is where beta readers are a huge help. You might have all the details sorted in your head or your outline, but sometimes you might have jumped from A to C without including B. When the plot is progressing, double check that the sequence of events works in a logical order and that all the necessary details that are required on the page are present.
While this just as bad as saying “fix your grammar” when it comes to specificity, it is during the small picture editing to go line by line and evaluate the weight of each sentence. This is when you can reevaluate your word choice, make sure that those metaphors really sing, and that you sentenced a best phrased.
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